I remember where I was exactly. It was January 28th, 1986, the day before store inventory and we were working hard to get everything ready to count. The inventory service would arrive before 5:00 AM the next day so all stockrooms and floor displays had to be prepared perfectly. I was walking out of the large stockroom in the rear of Harts store 107 located in Chillicothe Ohio and noticed to my left in the electronics department a crowd gathering around the TV displays. This wasn’t normal at all, especially a little before noon. When I approached the crowd, one of my coworkers was crying and the silence of the others quickly told me that something terrible had occurred.
On that fateful Tuesday, hundreds of people in Florida and millions watching on live television witnessed the Space Shuttle Challenger break apart in a mid-air explosion 34 years ago, killing everyone on board. The blast occurred 73 seconds after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Challenger’s fuel tank collapsed, resulting in an explosion that killed the seven astronauts on board and sent debris flying into the Atlantic Ocean. An investigation later determined a design flaw and cold weather led to the accident.
Peggy Noonan, one of the speechwriters in the Reagan Administration recalled that day and some of the President’s conversation in the Oval Office immediately after the tragedy… “He had talked about the sacrifices made by the families of the astronauts. He spoke of space as the last frontier. He said we’ve grown so used to success in space that this tragedy came as a special shock. He had been asked, in a private meeting with journalists, about the schoolchildren watching. He said, Pioneers have always given their lives on the frontier … but we have to make it clear to the children that life goes on.”
I remember the speech she wrote. I heard it that evening along with millions of Americans who were trying to make sense of the day’s events. To sort out our feelings and emotions. President Reagan was like a wise father that night who brought comfort in our chaos. He told us the facts and lovingly tucked our hearts to sleep reminding us that everything would be ok. It was ok to cry, it was a part of life to face bad things, but in the end America would go forward to better days. We all heard him, we trusted his words and we felt better.
What I remember most was the ending. Noonan recalled, “As I worked, I had watched, over and over, the videotape of the astronauts walking that morning toward the shuttle in their space suits. Awkwardly, humorously, with heavy-gloved hands, they had waved goodbye. I remembered a poem I’d learned in the seventh grade in public school on Long Island — “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American who’d volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940. In the poem, he spoke of the joy of flying, of the sensation of breaking free from gravity, breaking “the surly bonds of earth.” I put that line at the end of the speech, but I knew that Reagan would say it only if he knew that poem, if it mattered to him. When Reagan spoke, live from the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, he said at the end, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ “
Most of us also know that the investigations into the cause of the tragedy pointed out some serious shortfalls in human judgment and materials management. The New York Times put it frankly: the ultimate cause of the space shuttle disaster was pride. A group of top managers failed to listen carefully to the warnings of those down the line who were concerned about the operational reliability of certain parts of the booster rocket under conditions of abnormal stress. The people in charge were confident that they knew best and that they should not change the launch schedules. They were wrong.
All of the speculation and investigation point us to two important observations. First, details matter. Almost everything else on the spacecraft worked flawlessly, but the very few things that did not cause the unthinkable. Our lives are no different. We have everything in just the right place however, if one little sin is allowed to exist and thrive it can destroy most beautiful of lives.
Secondly, we are reminded that we have no promise of tomorrow. The astronauts had hundreds of experiments and tasks they were planning to accomplish on this scheduled trip into Earth’s orbit. The scriptures ring true, “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” We will each one day find ourselves slipping the surly bonds of earth. What matters most is that we are ready to go!
Tim Throckmorton is the Midwest Director of Ministry for the Family Research Council and can be reached at 740-935-1406